The Role of Trade Expertise in Shaping National Regulatory Autonomy

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: European Studies


The doctoral thesis will examine how expert knowledge influences and shapes the interpretation and development of the concept of national regulatory autonomy in international trade governance. As national governments have delegated increasing authority to international organisations, the tension between independence and interdependence is played out in ever more salient policy domains. Arguably, no international organisation exercises as broad an influence over national regulatory governance in as many countries as the World Trade Organization (WTO). Existing research has, however, only touched the surface of the implications that the work of trade experts in WTO committees - the most routine part of WTO governance involving each of the regime's substantive agreements - has for national regulatory affairs. In the shadow of the stalled negotiations of the Doha Round, numerous WTO bodies build on the existing legal framework through consultation, elaboration and peer review. This regular work at the WTO is more effective and potentially has more profound implications for the decision-making and domestic regulatory system of the Member States than many observers realise.

Despite their importance for regime maintenance, the role of experts and expert knowledge in shaping global (trade) governance has remained under-explored in the literature. The WTO has traditionally been considered a 'member-driven organisation', in which all decisions are made and substantiated by member governments. Researchers have only very recently begun to investigate expert knowledge as a structural feature of international trade governance, concluding that there are various ways in which expert knowledge constrains political agency, disciplines policy-making, or privileges certain insights and narratives over others.

The aim of the dissertation is to advance the initial argument that the familiar analytical paradigm of intergovernmental bargaining does not fully account for contemporary WTO governance and to contribute to the emerging body of interdisciplinary literature by incorporating individual and collective agency of WTO committee members into the analysis. Framing the WTO's diverse set of committees, working groups and review bodies - the main venues in which the everyday common sense of trade expertise is generated and circulated - as active participants in international trade governance will help to study how trade expertise influences the debate on how the borders between the WTO's authority and its members' authority are drawn.

The dissertation proposes to explicitly scrutinise empirically and theoretically how the discourse generated between committee members shapes common conceptual frameworks and shared ideas about the fundamental objectives and limits of the agreements and serves to close off alternative interpretations. By paying close attention to the communicative and cognitive processes through which disagreements are framed, arguments are made, knowledge is produced, and ideas are disseminated in these committees, important insights into the crucial tasks of regime maintenance and norm elaboration can be gained.

The project includes the development of a theoretical framework, which will allow me to specify and understand the role of trade expertise in contemporary WTO governance. This will build on three analytical steps: (i) a conceptual analysis of what is traditionally understood as 'national regulatory autonomy' in international economic law; (ii) an investigation of successive changes in the contents and processes of committee work over the last decades; and (iii) a detailed review of the literature that deals with international governance as a form of expert administration working on functionally limited technical tasks. The study then proceeds to several case studies, which will include a structured comparison of the interactions in several important WTO committees and working parties over the last decades.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
1916176 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 30/03/2021 Fabian Matthias Bohnenberger
Description The PhD project is still ongoing. A research paper is currently under review with a top journal in the field.
Exploitation Route The outcomes will be relevant both in an academic and policy context, especially with regard to the current reform debate on the World Trade Organization, which is the focus of my research.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy